Monday, January 16, 2006

The Suicide Bomber as Rock Star


Following my previous post on Tony Corn's "World War IV as Fourth-Generation Warfare," here's a short piece from Scientific American titled "Murdercide: Science unravels the myth of suicide bombers." The article includes a demographic breakdown of the typical suicide bomber—well-educated, from a stable family, with personal and professional commitments outstanding, which is a delicate way of saying "X is survived by his wife of Y years and Z children." More interestingly, there's some brief theorizing on how suicide bombers begin their careers—the glamour!—and end them—don't let down the team!

[Florida State University psychologist Thomas] Joiner postulates that a necessary condition for suicide is habituation to the fear about the pain involved in the act. How do terrorist organizations infuse this condition in their recruits? One way is through psychological reinforcement. University of Haifa political scientist Ami Pedahzur writes in Suicide Terrorism (Polity Press, 2005) that the celebration and commemoration of suicide bombings that began in the 1980s changed a culture into one that idolizes martyrdom and its hero. Today murderciders appear in posters like star athletes.

Another method of control is "group dynamics." Says Sageman: "The prospective terrorists joined the jihad through preexisting social bonds with people who were already terrorists or had decided to join as a group. In 65 percent of the cases, preexisting friendship bonds played an important role in this process." Those personal connections help to override the natural inclination to avoid self-immolation. "The suicide bombers in Spain are another perfect example. Seven terrorists sharing an apartment and one saying, 'Tonight we're all going to go, guys.' You can't betray your friends, and so you go along. Individually, they probably would not have done it."

I would laugh at this except that I used to play a future-combat game called Unreal Tournament, with computer-generated teammates who were in no way real except for their focus on accomplishing the team's violent. Weeks into this binge I found myself pushing harder to accomplish those goals in a scenario called "Bombing Run" that involved repeated self-immolation because I didn't want to let down the side. What will Widowmaker and Shard think of me then?

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